Long a staple of the holidays in Boston, Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” came to Mechanics Hall on Saturday afternoon, courtesy of the National Center of Afro-American Artists.
Essentially a retelling of the story of Jesus’ birth, Hughes labeled this 1961 effort a “gospel song-play.” It’s that and then some.
As a piece, “Black Nativity” draws heavily on music, particularly spirituals, as well as narration (most of which is taken from the Bible; there are also moments of dramatization peppered throughout). But there’s also acting, choreography, and lighting effects. In essence, it’s a kind of “Gesamtkunstwerk” of African American sacred traditions.
In the first of two performances on Saturday, these many strands proved vivifying.
Then again, how couldn’t they? Between the impassioned singing of Voices of Black Persuasion and Children of Black Persuasion; the charismatic narration of Voncille Ross; and the dynamic musicianship of an ensemble that included piano, organ, bass, and a variety of African percussion instruments, this was a presentation that combined the emotional fervor of a revival meeting with the sheer joy of the Christmas season.
Hughes’ organization of “Black Nativity’s” plot is straightforward enough, referencing the main events of the biblical narrative as recounted in the Gospel of Luke: the Annunciation, journey to Bethlehem, birth of Jesus, and visits of shepherds and Magi. Actors portray the various characters, occasionally through dance. The musical selections periodically offer insights into their disparate states of mind, all the while serving to move the story along.
Many of “Black Nativity’s” set pieces are familiar.
“Go Tell it on the Mountain” is the work’s anchor: In addition to an extended processional on the anthem, it’s reprised in the second half and at least a pair of numbers — “A Mighty Day” and “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow” — allude to “Mountain” textually and/or musically.
On Saturday, the arrangements of other well-known carols, from the percussive setting of “Joy to the World” to the gospel rendition of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” were exemplary. A couple of them, too — like “What Child Is This?” and “Away in the Manger” — offered welcome twists on the conventional melodic settings.
In the less traditional fare, “Black Nativity” was likewise bracing.
The piercing blue notes of “My Way Is Cloudy” and bent tones in “Poor Little Jesus” were powerfully articulated. Through dance and song, “No Room” illustrated with remarkable potency the sheer injustice of a pregnant woman and her husband being left out in the cold.
Meanwhile, the call-and-response refrains of “Mary’s On the Road” and “Joseph’s On the Road” snapped. “Oh, What a Pretty Little Baby” served as a lullaby of sorts, while the kids choir shined in “Mary, Mary, What You Gonna’ Name Your Baby?” and “When was Jesus Born?”
As for the birth of Jesus, that’s depicted in a thundering, percussion-accompanied dance for Mary. Sometimes “Black Nativity” includes a live baby as the newborn Savior; on Saturday there was a doll instead — though, given the magnificent decibel levels generated by the drums, perhaps that was for the best.
Taken together, Saturday’s performance confirmed “Black Nativity” as a stirring, timely offering. At its core is a theme of participating and uniting in celebration. Suffice it to say, the message came across compellingly, even if its immediate prospects were rendered somewhat moot by the conventions of the concert hall.
Either way, the call remained. It doesn’t matter, the piece seemed to say, whether the summons is spiritual, emotional, musical, or something else; the point is community and shared humanity. Join with it, engage in it, contribute to it. In these dark, cynical, divisive days, “Black Nativity” fuels the hope that such efforts remain worthwhile.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Langston Hughes’ 'Black Nativity' at Mechanics Hall a call to community